CEO of the Year (Large For-Profit)

Healthy Outlook

From the December 2013 issue of Columbus CEO
  • Photos by Ryan M.L. Young

George Barrett’s employees call him by his first name as he walks the halls of Cardinal Health’s Dublin headquarters. The CEO’s energy and enthusiasm are contagious among what appears to be a very motivated workforce.

“Our people are really energized by that notion of being critical to the healthcare system,” says Barrett, who projects an aura that’s at once shrewd and warmly engaging as he pops in and out of Cardinal’s boardrooms.

Barrett’s gift is his ability to stay plugged in to the global healthcare ecosystem while maintaining a connection with the more than 30,000 employees in his organization. Because of his accomplishments, Barrett’s peers have recognized him as the Large For-Profit CEO of the Year for 2013.

*Interview is edited for length

We really see our mission here as being the business behind health care. Making the health care system more cost effective. Historically, we’ve been a company that’s served the (healthcare) provider system, meaning it’s been a B2B business…In many ways our work has been about enabling those caregivers to devote their full time to patient care.

For many years we’ve been behind the scenes as a health-services company that enables the system to function efficiently. That’s begun to evolve a little bit more through some recent moves where we’ve become more involved in actual patient care.

It’s an extraordinary time in health care.

It’s estimated that sometime within the next ten to 15 years, we could have 20 million people over the age of 80. It’s an incredible number. The implications of that on our health system and on our economy…are really profound.

I think one of the challenges is being able to serve that system, take care of those patients (and) at the same time, do so in a way that doesn’t stifle growth in our economy.

Regardless of exactly how the healthcare bill rolls out, we can’t escape the powerful forces. We can’t escape demographics. We can’t escape the fact that we’ve got health issues as a country.

Our work is going to be very important in terms of how we help the system navigate that, what the tools we can bring to help deliver care to a large population and deliver care in an affordable way. That’s at the heart of our proposition. I think that’s what motivates our people.

I’ve been around healthcare for 30 years in different parts of the healthcare system, so I’ve been very active on health policy issues. I do the best I can to be constructive to help us as a country think about how best to navigate this interesting challenge.

One of the huge challenges for every company today—and I try to make sure we’re very much on top of this—is competing in the world as we know it. Competing to win and, at the same time, having a point of view on the future and what we think is going to unfold. We’ve made some very important moves in both of those dimensions.

In our core business, we know that growing scale has been very important. So the acquisition of Kinray (in 2010) and the acquisition of Dik Drug (in 2012) were very much about improving our scale. Because we know that to be increasingly efficient, we need to deliver on that.

We’ve been through some enormous changes in these last five years. We made a decision to spin off a profitable and thriving medical device business as a new public company called CareFusion.

We did some tremendous work in repositioning our business to diversity our customer base, to diversify the sets of products and services that we provide and to make sure that we are increasingly relevant.

You have to be able to recognize change in front of you. So we’ve really challenged the organization to say, ‘We are going to be relevant to this healthcare system, no matter how fast it changes.’

One of the great challenges for any organization is staying nimble enough and adaptive enough to adjust to those changes. I’m very proud of the work that our people have done.

In particular, I think it’s about the people that we’ve been able to attract and develop a wonderful talent here in Ohio and around the world in our organization. We’ve worked very hard at that. We think that’s critical to our future.